The Lone Passenger

There was what looked like a crumpled twenty dollar bill on the ground. When I picked it up I  discovered it was a coupon for a local massage parlor. Instead of Andrew Jackson in the oval, though, there was a picture of an attractive, winking woman — yet wearing Jackson’s wild hair. (I have no idea how this was supposed to induce men to try the young woman’s services?)

The bus stop was three blocks away and slightly downhill from my apartment and before I knew it I was there, standing for the bus. I don’t mean this in the figurative sense, that time was a small blip, I mean this pretty much in the literal, I had no idea of what transpired in those three blocks or what I passed or who I saw, it’s as if I transported Star Trek-style to the bus stop in less than a millisecond. My body defragmented and re-figured in 1960’s special effects.

I never sit down on the bus bench because that’s where homeless people sleep and they have weird diseases and odd notions of what constitute bathrooms. I don’t care how long I have to wait for the bus. You won’t catch me sitting on the bench, not even in Beverly Hills. I looked at the coupon again and realized it was right down the street from where I lived, but I’d never noticed before. (Maybe because Scotty was always beaming me from my apartment to the store, or bus stop, or work?) I’ve never gotten a massage before, not one of those kinds at least, and didn’t see the point in it. What good is it if there’s no feeling behind it? It’s like those magnetic refrigerator poems — sure, there’s a collection of words there that seem like poetry when one moves them around, but no feeling from the resultant “poetry”, no soul to them.

I threw the coupon in the trash just as the bus arrived and the doors swung opened. There was nobody on the bus but the driver who had an oily Jerry curl and mean, yellow eyes, and me. This was strange for this time in the afternoon, but I took it as a sign that maybe the city didn’t plan to get in my way today. A little blessing you shouldn’t think too hard about. I was in no mood to deal with the crowds anyway. I took a seat where I could put my feet on the chair in front of me and watched the graffiti and grime go by.

I don’t know why but I was pissed off, and I didn’t want to fix it, or I didn’t want to hold it back, unsure if those weren’t the same things. Like when you get a parking ticket and you just drive off with the ticket still tucked underneath your windshield, aware its there but too annoyed by its presence to actually remove it. I guess that’s the feeling that leads people to get tattoos of devils ripping off the heads of angels. So upset at injustice they want to display their spite and pain forever, even if it just does nothing but isolate them forever, probably causing more pain and injustice. I wasn’t about to get a tattoo but I had this toxic emotion clogging me up and nowhere to put it, because I didn’t know why it was there and why I was just noticing it now.

Things were actually going well in my life. I was excelling at work, just yesterday my boss told me I was being considered for department manager because I put in the long hours without all the bullshit (his words) the others give him about needing time off for auditions and to go home to visit family. And when I got home and ran into my landlord he told me I was the best tenant in the building, so quiet and respectful and never bothering anybody else with parties or girls coming over late at night like that wannabe rock star down in 3b. My mother has even stopped asking me when I was going to get married and now just thanks me for the card I send her every birthday and mother’s day. It seemed life was a ship that had gotten over the rough seas and was now on calm and serene waters — yet I carried a heavy weight that felt prone to sink me. Like there was a bulldozer on the deck of a yacht. What the fuck was a bulldozer doing on the deck of a yacht? When I had spent so much of my life monitoring what was being brought on to the ship, upbraiding guests for even suggesting a third friend or an extra set of luggage?

Okay, the metaphor doesn’t quite work because I’m no yacht. This I’m sure. The bus is my transport, my conveyance. I’m okay with that, that’s not what is getting me mad, I’m pretty well sure. Something else. Something bubbling from underneath. Something, maybe, about, the way my mom doesn’t recognize that although I’m not married, that doesn’t mean I don’t love her less, although she doesn’t seem to love me the same, I mean, without a wife and child for her to brag about or reference at church on Sundays when people ask about me and how I’m doing, but I don’t mind where I’m at, but she seems to… it’s okay, I’m alright with it, but maybe, just maybe, that’s part of the black smoke filling me up. But it can’t be, not all of it, because I’ve always dealt with that. I don’t even like my mother that much. I don’t know…

And I’m used to feeling like Shaquille O’Neal at Tiananmen Square. The level of metaphor so apt right on down to its political level, Shaq being the ultimate capitalist basketball player. (Shazam, anyone?) I liked my out-of-placeness. I liked being the only white guy on the bus. I liked being somebody that if they had nothing to say, didn’t speak, and let those that always seemed to have something to say, as if silence were a plague they had to constantly inoculate themselves against, prattle on about what celebrities were doing what, or about how their own relationships seemed to have epic dimensions of heartache and woe. I learned very early on that people liked to talk about themselves, but even more so, hear others talk about them, so I would ask questions and seem interested in order to allow them the succor of self-centered inspection, even though nobody returned the favor. I really had nothing to say about myself, anyway, my own internal life being more boring than a PBS afternoon talk show, like Charlie Rose interviewing the ambassador to Luxembourg. (Luxembourg being the most boring country I could think of for this metaphor, and I don’t know anything about Luxembourg, and only chose it for the metaphor because it’s a very tiny country, and even now that I examine the metaphor I realize that this fact actually makes it a very interesting country, but will let it stand because to change it now seems like I care too much about being right, which is far from my main concern now. I, in fact, would like to be wrong for once in my life! I’m always right about how my family forgets my existence and girls overlook me for my simplicity and natural kind-heartedness.)

I was still engaged in deciding whether Luxembourg is an interesting case study, or boring, when I looked up and realized the bus reached the depot. The driver pivoted in his seat and fixed his yellow eyes on me and told me everybody — meaning me, the lone passenger — had to debark. I noticed his eyes weren’t really yellow, but more tangerine, and were oddly situated half-up the bridge of his nose, like a lake that somehow climbs half-up a mountain slope, seeming to break laws of physics.

“But I missed my stop,” I argued.

“End of the line.”

“Can I ride it back around the other way and get off at Fairfax?”

“End of the line,” he repeated in a tone that signaled it would be the last comment he would make about the subject.

I was downtown, underneath the 10 concrete lanes of the freeway, rumbling with cars racing 60 miles per hour over my head, and the ramps curling off in both directions for other freeways, like ram horns, and the overwhelming feeling of atoms splitting in half filling me; an urge (admittedly so unlike me) to blow off work and walk around this foreign place percolated out of me. For, although I live in a neighborhood that even the most overzealous real estate agent wouldn’t dare to describe as prosperous, I always feared spending time downtown, home to Skid Row, and where you could imagine a man approaching you with a trench coat filled with counterfeit watches, and women with stockings in daytime strutted their wares, but now found the idea of spending the afternoon not only appealing, but necessary and fated.

There was a homeless man sleeping next to a bottle of some dark and most likely highly intoxicating substance with his torn, black Dickie pants pulled down, exposing a very dark crack of an asshole. It wasn’t something you wanted to look at, but something you also couldn’t avoid looking at, like death on the highway. The dark and crusty slit of his asshole was like the opposite of a crystal ball, opaque and instead of seeing into the future, you see his past. The alcoholism, the madness, the street defecation. When I looked closer I could see myself, sitting in my apartment, not even watching T.V., just sitting there, looking lost. Lost in my own home. I don’t know what came over me, where this charitable instinct sprung from, but I got on one knee and, careful as if I were playing the children’s game Operation, slipped a 5-dollar bill into his pocket, carefully avoiding touching any part of his flesh. He moaned and gurgled in his sleep, causing me to jump up and scurry off like a frightened mouse.

A church bell began to toll, an out-of-place sound that filled me with piquant joy but that ended after three rings, leaving me jittery and disappointed. I was waiting for a fourth toll that never came. It’s only three in the afternoon, so that’s all it should ring, but something about just recognizing the sound of church bells before they disappeared felt sad and almost apocalyptic. Yet, when it’s high noon and the tolling won’t relent, that drives a pounding ache in my heart as well. 5 o’clock, that’s when church bells sound their best.

I turned the corner and found myself suddenly walking down a very busy street filled with vendors of all sorts of crap and loud mariachi music blaring from an electronic store where it seemed they only sold electronic equipment from the previous decade. There was liter in the streets and a white van backing out of an alley. It’s beeping sound seemed to linger even after the van had righted itself and driving off down the block. Like the beeping sound was now the sound my brain was making.

There was a little Mexican woman with a large mole on her face holding a small plastic aquarium occupied by two turtles that held their necks up in a highly alert fashion and stared angrily out of their cage.  I had read about these turtles on the Internet once and knew that they weren’t baby turtles, just normal turtles that were stunted by their cramped cages, and most of them contained salmonella.

“Ten dollars,” she said.

I had no intention, not in a million years, of  buying them, but still I asked, “Really? Only ten dollars?”

“Ten dollars,” she repeated in an accent that confirmed that these were probably the only two English words she knew.

I paused in front of the woman to get a better look. They had a red dot on their heads and a plastic palm tree and some colored rocks to sit on. I was thinking in my head how sad it was for them to live in such a cramped condition. One of the turtles turned its green head toward me and said in a little turtle voice, hard to describe but you know it when you hear it, “That’s what I was thinking about you.”

I looked at the woman to see if she heard the turtle talking also, but she just held the turtles higher and repeated, “Ten dollars.”

The turtle said, “What is your life worth? I bet it’s not worth more than ten dollars. Don’t feel sorry for me, loser.”

I told the woman, “There’s something wrong with your turtle,” but she just stared and shrugged. This made me angry and I wanted to tell her not to keep such indignant reptiles on the street, but then I pictured the harshness of her life. Having to leave a homeland behind and now probably living with 15 family members in a two bedroom apartment and her children becoming members of the 18th Street gang or whatever gang terrorized her neighborhood, and people like me judging her. This sprawling image somehow compressed into one quick frame made me desperately guilty for my own life of relative comfort. “Maybe, next time,” I lied and she shrugged again and turned her attention to a women with a stroller that had stopped to let her little child look at the stack of turtles tied together with bungee cord.

I walked. I walked for blocks. I went in a circle around two or three of those blocks. The voice of the turtle asking what my life was worth played in a loop.  I wanted to be aimless and there’s nothing like doing circles to give you that feeling. I pulled out my cell phone to call into work and tell them I was sick, and in fact, a part of me thought that might be true, although not with the sniffles or the flu, but a disease in my mind, because I was feeling very unlike myself and was infected by the most insane, angry thoughts. (And most obviously, I was hearing turtles talking to me.) One of the insane thoughts being that the world was a piece of fruit that had once been glorious and sweet but was now past its ripe stage and was beginning to rot, and the people on this planet now, with their Internets and Reality Shows and Dance Clubs, were just maggots devouring it up from the inside. My cell phone got no reception, though, so I shoved it back into my pocket. Fuck those people, anyway! I’ve covered for them enough, let them see how the place will run without me!

It was then that I came across a bar with a chopped-up wooden door, like an ax had been taken to it, and stained glass windows that gave the place an air of destroyed sanctity that I just couldn’t resist in my present state. I’m not a drinker, but thought that maybe today was the day to start.

It was so dark it was hard to see the arrangement of the room and once the door closed behind me the place fell into an almost blackened state so that it was impossible to get a sense of its size or how many people were inside. The bartender came over, bleach blonde hair, around 50 years-old, or maybe that’s just drunk-years and she’s really only 35. The odd thing was she was wearing an eye patch with a drawing of an eye over it. I don’t know if the eye patch was necessary or just for a gag. Either way, it was an odd image to settle my eyes on.

“Haven’t see you here before, baby,” she said, her voice sounding like gravel being raked.

“No, I guess you haven’t.”

“Well, what’s your poison?”

I joked, “Cyanide?”

A voice down the bar laughed and then coughed and then cursed. A series of sounds that I surmised was probably common for the gentleman. The room reeked of emphysema and despair.

“We’ve got that if you want,” the bartender said seriously. “But it doesn’t come cheap.”

“No, I think I’ll have… a beer?”

She laughed. “Yeah, we have that. Do you care which kind?”

I actually didn’t know what beer to have. “Does it really matter?”

“Not to the people here. Have a seat.”

They say your eyes take three minutes to adjust to darkness, but I was still swimming in blindness. I sat down and watched her fill up what looked like a half-cleaned glass with beer from the tap. The handle to the tap said ‘Devil’s Piss’, and I thought to myself, perfect! She placed it in front of me, spilling some of the froth over the edge. I asked her how much.

“On me, sweetie. Next one, though isn’t free.”

“Thanks.”

I took a sip and was surprised that it tasted quite nice. Refreshing even. The last beer I had didn’t leave me with a good impression. That might have been a couple of years ago, now that I think about it. At my sister’s wedding. I drank three of them and ended up talking to a waitress for an hour about how her mother stopped packing her lunches in the third grade and this somehow made her want to become an actress, I don’t know, it was quite hazy, but sooner or later I remember they were putting the chairs on top of the tables and I had one more of those beers and I told her I loved her in front of my sister and my mom and they laughed at me, including the waitress, and I swore I would never drink again. But that was back in Missouri. (Misery, I like to call it.)

I was done with my beer before I knew it. Scotty, beam this beer into my belly.

“One more please,” I said while pulling my wallet from my back pocket. The bartender smiled in a way I couldn’t help but notice was omniscient ans superior. I felt somebody sit down beside me and turned and couldn’t believe how amazing looking this woman was. Jet black hair all the way down to the curve of her back, a beauty mark hovering just over her lip, big, green eyes that carved your heart out and showed it to you with one flicker from them. She shone, even in this pitch black environment, possessing a level of attractiveness that should she have been the bartender here and not just a fellow patron could turn even the most devout Mormon a bar stool barnacle.

“You seem sad,” she in a sonorous lilt that kissed my ear so hard it made me blink. A voice that seemed to originate freely in the air and contain honeysuckle.

Nobody’s figured me out so quickly before, for that matter, nobody’s ever really even tried. I sidestepped her analysis. “Um. I’m… no, I’m disgruntled, maybe.”

“Huh. Okay, whatever you say,” she told me. “I’ll pay for his beer, Jane.”

I’m not sure why this surprised me. “Jane? Her name’s Jane?”

The girl giggled. “Yeah, why not?”

Jane put a beer in front of me and told me drink up, so I took a big sip and it tasted even better than the last one. I think that was due to the presence of the woman and her clover-colored eyes that made me feel like the fool at the end of the rainbow.

I asked, “Do you have a name?”

“Of course, but names just box us in, don’t you think?”

“If you say so. Mine’s…” I stopped because I couldn’t remember what my name was. I really couldn’t. It was the oddest thing! I tried. I sat and thought about it and I came close to it a couple of times, maybe, but nothing seemed to land. They all sounded like the names of somebody like me, but not me, like a twin I might of had. I’d completely forgotten my own name! I was about to pull out my wallet to check my ID but realized that would look absurd so I told her my name was Winston.

“Well, Winston, when you finish that beer, you should come back here with me.”

“Where?”

She smiled, her lips red like Dorothy’s slippers. I would have followed her into a tornado. “I want to show you something in the back room,” she replied. My heart took a spill down a long flight of steps. The room seemed to expand and contract like a lung and I got a sudden sensation of running across a frozen pond. I was excited, but yet, hesitant. I didn’t know if I actually should follow her. She wouldn’t tell me her name. She was way too good-looking to be picking up a guy like me. Maybe it was a setup. Maybe there were a dozen tattooed thieves waiting in that back room to stick knives in my ribs and steal my wallet and clothes and leave me naked, wandering downtown in a stumbling miasma. I was already feeling a little woozy from the beers and had never been in a fight before. I could picture the newscasters reporting the incident on the 6 o’clock news, actually, this is Los Angeles, I doubt it would make the news, but either way, I didn’t want to find out.

“What is it? What do you want to show me?” I asked, then added for some weird reason, “You know, I’m no country boy.”

She smiled again and I knew I’d follow her into that back room. She was worth being beaten and bloodied for. She leaned into me and our shoulders touched and I swear I felt a wave of electricity pass between us and travel down into my legs making them jump like when the doctor tests your reflexes by hammering your kneecap, and it was at this point that I’ve never felt so alive, but also unsure it wasn’t just a dream, that is until she picked up my hand and led me off of my stool and I knew it wasn’t a dream but the whole reason I didn’t go into work today. I was waiting for something like this to happen. I don’t believe in destiny, but I do believe that every now and then luck finds even the most cranky of fools to crown with its glory.

It was fifteen steps to the backdoor. I know because I counted each one, trying to steady my legs from being so wobbly. It wasn’t the beer making them unstable but holding her hand. I wanted to drop to my knees, say ‘marry me and let’s have thirteen kids that swarm around us like a hive of happy bees,’ but after the embarrassment at my sister’s wedding I knew better, that’s why I counted the steps. So I wouldn’t say anything stupid, I suppose.

She opened the door and a blast of cheering and clapping hit me. There was a tier of steps draining down to a ring in the center of the room and everybody was standing and waving their arms. The crowd was so thick I couldn’t see what they were watching, but I heard loud grunting and then a thud and everybody groaned and laughed almost in unison.

“What’s going on?”

“Come on,” she beckoned. “I know a way.”

We slithered along the wall behind the back row until we hit an opening in the mob and snaked our way closer and it was then I could see what everybody was watching. I didn’t believe my eyes. I looked at her and then back to the ring and asked, “Is that…?”

“Yeah, it’s a baby rhinoceros.”

“With its horn cut off?”

She laughed. “Well, we don’t want anybody to get hurt, do we?”

“But…” I started to say, but then some brave rider hopped over the wall into the ring and the crowd cheered. The man approached the baby rhino who gave a snort. He danced with it, dipping side to side so that the rhino turned and showed its flank and the man quickly swung his foot over the rhino’s back and climbed on top. I held my breath and waited but the rhino just stood there with the rider on its back making triumphant gestures to the crowd. The audience cheered and laughed.

“What happens?”

“Pretty much this…”

A man walked by with a tray of beer and we both took one and stood there waiting for the rhino to make a move. I was so excited from this scene that I practically drank it down in one gulp. Suddenly the rhino dropped forward so that both knees were in the mud and its passenger flipped right over the front into the mud himself. The crowd roared with approval and high-fived each other. The rider stood and bowed ceremoniously and exited the ring.

I turned to her. “Thank you. Thank you for showing me this,” I gushed. Then without even thinking, I dipped down and kissed her hard and long on the lips. She returned the kiss and time paused and in my head, I said, ‘Scotty, don’t do a damn thing.’

This act was more surprising than seeing people riding a baby rhinoceros in a downtown bar. I don’t know where this courage came from, I suspected the Devil’s Piss had something to do with it, but also the surprise at finding this underground sport and blowing off work. I felt like I was finally taking control of my life. Those three fatal words bubbled up to my lips but I tucked them underneath each other so nothing could come out. Another man was getting in the ring but I lost all interest and couldn’t concentrate on anything but what just happened. What just fucking happened?

“Okay, Winston, it was nice meeting you,” she said unexpectedly and before I had a chance to ask her, well, anything, she disappeared into the crowd and I was alone with two fingers of beer in my cup and a racing heart.

Was she just having her fun with me? Why did she kiss me back? I looked around for her but couldn’t spot her. I thought about riding the rhino myself but had lost interest in the sport and just wanted to find the girl. I was determined to decide my own destiny for once. I wanted to tell her how beautiful she was and how kissing her made me realized that anything was possible. But she wasn’t there. Was she ever there?

All of a sudden the crowd grew quiet and I noticed that everybody was looking at me, including the rhinoceros, and they all looked sad, like mourners at the funeral of a 13-year-old Leukemia patient.

It was too much. I stumbled and pushed my way out of the back room, then ran past the bartender Jane with her eye patch and the man coughing into his beer, into the sunlit street and back to the bus depot. I couldn’t set my thoughts in order, they were scattered all over the place like children’s toys after a sugar-fueled afternoon with an indolent babysitter.

My bus ride home was packed and stunk like body odor and exhaust. We chugged and rattled through the city and I tried to find some explanation for the rhino and the kiss and the eye patch but I didn’t want an explanation. I just wanted to find the girl again.

The next day I called into work and told them that I had the stomach flu the day before, and I still do, and I’m sorry for not calling in but I was so sick that I passed out and woke up in the middle of the night. Because nobody ever expects anything unusual out of me, my boss believed it and expressed concern for my health and told me to take as much time as I needed to recover.

I got to the bar and Jane was behind the counter and the old man was there too, but Jane didn’t have her eye patch on. “No eye patch today?”

She gave me a queer look and asked for my order rather rudely.

“Devil’s Piss.”

“What’s that? Some kind of cocktail?”

“No, beer. You have it on tap.”

“Nope. Just Budweiser, Coors Light, and Guinness, except we’re out of Guinness. So, what’ll be? I haven’t all day.”

I didn’t know what was going on, what kind of practical joke was being played, maybe they were raided after I left and she was playing it cool? Or the rhinoceros only happens on certain days and the rest of the time they act like nothing out of the ordinary goes on. “I don’t remember her name, but there was that real pretty girl here yesterday, talking to me, is she here?”

“Pretty girl?” She laughed hysterically. “Not here, buddy.”

“Let me just go to the back room real quick and then come back and order.”

“The back room?”

“Yeah, I’ll be right back.”

I didn’t count the steps this time because I was in a hurry to see if everything was still there. I opened the door and a stench of stale urine hit me. A light bulb was jarring and swinging from the ceiling. A sink, a urinal and a toilet was the only thing in the room. No rhino. No crowds. No girl. Just a rusty quarter condom machine. On the edge of the sink was the crumpled up coupon for a massage parlor that looked like a 20-dollar bill.

I stood there, dumbfounded, staring at myself in the dirty mirror, scratched with gang names I couldn’t understand, and the reflection in it stared back at me sulkily. It was me, but not me, not the guy in my ID.

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